Thursday, November 30, 2006

Creation: true or not, it's True: R' Wieder

Just listened to an mp3 of Rabbi Jeremy Wieder of YU, on the limits of non-literal interpretation of Scripture.

He sets the limits pretty far out, for non-halachic material. Halacha has to be interpreted as Chazal say, which may well be non-literal, but halacha is not affected by changes in science (pace spontaneous generation of body lice).

First, he dismisses "ein mikra yotzei miydei pshuto" -

Then, he surveys the sources.
  1. R' Saadia Gaon (9th century) - if science and literal readings conflict, allegorize the verses. Four places for non-literal readings: contradicts the senses, e.g. Eim Col Chai not being mother of animals; contradicts the intellect, e.g. anthropomorphizing God; contradictory verses; Chazal's presumption of non-literalism.
  2. Rambam (12th century) (Guide II:25) - if philosophy proves that something is true, against our traditional readings of verses, we are forced to allegorize the verses. He talks about two theories of the Eternity of the Universe:
    1. Aristotle: matter is indestructible
    2. Plato: matter is destructible.
    Aristotle's theory is theologically untenable. If there were a proof of it, Rambam would have to suspend his intellect, and surrender to the revealed Truth. Plato's theory only differs from our ideas in that for him, creation is "yesh miyesh" (from pre-existing existence), rather than our "yesh me-ayin" (creatio ex nihilo, from total nonexistence). It would probably be easier to allegorize than all the stuff in the first part of the Guide allegorizing the anthropomorphic verses in the face of the Truth of an incorporeal God.
  3. Teshuva of the Rashba: people may study science, and reinterpret verses if they don't work any more, as long as
    1. no violation of fundamentals of faith
    2. no change in halakha
Ramban on the Torah echoes Saadia's first principle, in explaining the rainbow in Noach - the verse seems to say that it was put in the clouds just then, but clearly it's part of the natural order, so that can't be literally true - it must be, that the rainbow already existed, but that it was given this new significance at this time.

Where is his red line? Matan Torah - the Sinaitic revelation, the founding moment of our people. That could not be allegorized, deliteralized from history, without disturbing the fundamentals of Jewish belief. Genesis 1-11, no problem allegorizing that. The Avos, he would be troubled by an allegorizing interpretation, but it doesn't cross his red line. The Exodus, an allegorical interpretation would really really bother him, but it could still be non-heretical. But Sinai must have happened, as stated, or else the whole Torah can't be True.

But cosmogony, evolution - no fundamental problem, as long as we're not dealing with "evolutionism" - a form of atheism centering on evolution - because evolutionary change is random to the human eye. But the knowledge of God isn't like the knowledge of humans - so God may have a pattern that we can't perceive.

And note, stories can be True, if not literally happened. E.g., Chazal say this of Job, it may never have happened, but it still expresses religious Truths.

A few gems:
  • Science is DEscriptive, Torah is PREscriptive ... the medievals knew this.
  • Some halakhists don't know the boundaries of halakha, some scientists don't know the boundaries of science ... that's where the problem starts.
  • Science and Torah run on parallel tracks - they don't intersect, conflict.


Anonymous said...

this is terrible. one has to distinguish between allegory vs alternative literal translations. while it is true that the Ramban interprets the verse about the rainbow differently b/c of the scientific compononent, that is far from a allegorical interpretation which states that such and such never really happened as described by the chumash. adn while it is true that the rambam and other rishonim do intermittently envoke allegorical interpreations it is not as widespread as R' Wieder might have you believe.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i think i was at this lecture. when r' wieder talked about the uncomfortability of allegorizing past Migdal Bavel, i didn't think he was talking about himself in particular, but about the [Orthodox] community as a whole.